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Fresh off winning his first Hoku, Kamakakehau Fernandez lends a new voice to Hawaiian music.

Kamakakehau Fernandez at Ho‘omaluhia Botanical Garden

Nā Hōkū Hanohano, Hawai‘i’s homegrown equivalent of the Grammys, may have been around for 30 years, but this year’s extravaganza was one of its most exciting. And one of the best moments took place when vocalist Sunway stepped onto the stage with rising star Kamakakēhau Fernandez. Their song of choice wasn’t local, but, interestingly enough, Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Of course, there was a twist. After Sunway opened the tune, Fernandez launched into the next verse—in a never-before-heard Hawaiian version. The soulful rendition brought the house down. Appropriately, the singer also took home a Hōkū for his debut album, Wahi Mahalo.

Conveying humble thanks, the title is a fitting expression of gratitude for an artist whose life has been transformed by Hawai‘i. Fernandez was, in fact, born in Arkansas. As fate would have it, he would be adopted at just 6 weeks old and taken to Maui. There, he would be immersed in the native language and culture, later graduating from a Hawaiian language immersion high school. During this time, Fernandez found his love for music, though his tastes leaned more toward pop.

It was during a visit to The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, that his path would change. “I was singing in the hallway, and my uncle Clifford Nae‘ole came out and asked me, ‘Was that you?’” he recalls. His uncle just happened to be The Ritz-Carlton’s cultural advisor. With some encouragement from his relative, Fernandez would delve into the art of falsetto singing, later winning the Richard Ho‘opi‘i Leo Ki‘eki‘e Contest. Given Maui’s small music scene, the aspiring artist made the move to O‘ahu in 2009, eventually landing regular appearances at The Royal Hawaiian. Finally, Fernandez took the leap and recorded his first disc, a vibrant set of eight sparkling Hawaiian melodies.

Of course, scoring a Hōkū has its benefits, like a spike in interest from Japan. (There, artists from Hawai‘i enjoy abundant airtime and regularly sell out concert halls, and deservedly so.) This summer, Fernandez had  taste of the sweet life with his own show in Yokohama. Fernandez is already working on his next album. (Expect Hawaiian-flavored neo-soul.) But the singer has a broader vision for his future, too. “I want to teach our music and culture to the kamali‘i (children), the next generation,” he says.